We had a showdown of epic proportions on Saturday! And I'm not talking about the football! There will be more than enough time for everybody and anybody to opine regarding the football on Saturday. With Cal doing a hard restart on the football program, few gave them much of a chance against one of the finest teams in the nation. And those few people were wrong!
No, I'm not here to talk football, I'm here to talk marching bands. I was very specifically focused on the band-off on Saturday, because of the history between the Cal and Ohio State bands.
If you were not knowledgeable about how Cal came to adopt much of the OSU style,here is a quick primer:
After the 1950 Rose Bowl against Ohio State University, the Cal Band decided to adopt its present high-stepping style after they discovered their performance looked lackluster in comparison to Ohio State's marching band. The Straw Hat Band, a subset of the Cal Band, was also established that same year. After Professor Cushing (director from 1934 to 1950) resigned, the Music Department was asked to provide the ASUC with a new Director for the Band.
Basically, after the 1950 Rose Bowl, the Cal band was so embarrassed their director "resigned" and the new director decided to make the Cal band as much like OSU as possible. That is why my tweet from Saturday is so wildly hilarious!
OMG the Ohio state band stole all their moves from Cal! This is so awkward!!— GoldenBlogs (@GoldenBlogs) September 14, 2013
Yay me! Bottom line, to me, the larger question was not if Cal could beat OSU in football, but whether Cal could beat OSU in marching band! The answer?
Not only did they hold their own, but the Cal band, in my view, was superior to the OSU band. I'll get into that in a bit. Firstly, before I get into the nittiest of the gritties, I'd love to make a statement that I think even the OSU bandshumans potentially reading this would agree with:
It was completely and totally unacceptable that the OSU band played during gameplay.
I have bolded this, italicized it, and placed it into blockquotes to emphasize my point. While Cal was preparing to snap the ball, OSU band would be playing some kind of quick ditty. Just as the ball would snap, they would immediately stop. I use the phrase "immediately stop" loosely as often it would continue well into the play. If I am being generous, I would say that they were trying to stop 200+ people on the world's smallest dime, which is a challenge. However, I don't feel generous as they were the ones that put themselves in that position in the first place.
Valued reader dpassage sent along some information on Pac-12/NCAA rules. Here is the relevant NCAA rule (page 94 of this PDF):
Persons subject to the rules, including bands, shall not create any noise that prohibits a team from hearing its signals (Rule 1-1-6).
The OSU band seems in clear violation of this rule to me. Even if they didn't play during the gameplay itself, they would be in violation.
Bands performing at Conference football games shall be prohibited from playing from the time the offensive team breaks from the huddle until the completion of that play. (12/84, 2/9)
If this was not a conference game, then the rule may not be applicable here. So, OSU may not have been in violation of Pac-12 rules.
I felt that it was incredibly disrespectful to Cal, to the game of football, to sportsmanship in general for the Ohio State band to do this. Considering that they were respectful of Cal in other ways, this is surprising. But playing the Cal fight song in pre-game doesn't quite make up for directly attempting to affect the game. I do not know what can be done about it. Unfortunately, probably nothing.
I don't think even the USC band does that (although I may be wrong). And if you are worse than the USC band, you need to take a hard look at yourself in the mirror. Even if I am wrong and the USC band does play during gameplay, then that makes the Ohio State band equal to the USC band, which is a fate worse than death.
Now that we've put that massive, massive problem out there, let's return to the band off from Saturday.
The first thing that I noticed regarding the OSU band is that they have no woodwinds. They have solely brass and percussion (AND LOTS OF IT!). This is immediately alarming to me. Sure, my brass friends would crack a few jokes when I would bring this up, but the reality of it is that woodwinds are, in my humble opinion, a key part of any marching band blend.
Not to include woodwinds is to restrict your musicality. You'll have a strong brassy sound at the expense of having the lighter touch. The best example is when OSU plays Fight For California. Here is a video of the pre-game show from Saturday thanks to valued reader CalBear81:
Their version of Fight starts at about 1:20. Here is the video from last year's game:
Their version sounds weird to me, like an off-brand version of Fight, like Safeway Select Fight. The version of Fight there starts at 3:24. It sounds normal through the first phrase, but after that, it is like listening to the bass track of some song when the upper register melody is missing.
I am sure there are many other collegiate marching bands out there that do not have woodwinds. My criticism would be the same. I spoke about this in 2009 when I did an analysis of the Cal band and the Stanford band.
In there, I talked about how important instrumentation is. It is going to limit your ability to really play certain songs if you don't have piccolos or clarinets or saxophones. While individual saxes may be hard to pick compared to an individual trumpet, the entirety of the sound is wildly altered when you don't have a single wood wind.
The most important thing that jumps out at you about the OSU band is how precise they are technically. Perfect lines, great high step, well-organized horn flashes. They easily outstripped the Cal band in this department. For some people, that may be sufficient to place the OSU band ahead of the Cal band.
However, the marching bands are performing at football games in front of fans, not marching band competitions in front of judges etc etc. While their precise style might win them awards in that latter arena, the focus at the games is to entertain.
With entertainment as the goal, I was surprised by the OSU band's lack of energy out there. It started early when they slowly marched onto the field. Compare and contrast that with the Cal band exploding out of the tunnel and bringing their wedge down the field, led by the point.
That is the bird's eye view, but you can always get the ground view from this video thanks to CalBear81:
I thought that the OSU band might have slowly ambled out onto the field because they were at an away stadium, but after watching their pregame show from the game last year, I see that even at home, they lack the energy of the Cal band. The Cal band pre-game show was also much more complicated. There were many more formations than the Cal band did than the OSU band. OSU did block Ohio, script Cal, and script Ohio. The Cal band did many more, including the Block C, Fiat Lux, Bear, etc etc. You can see it in the video. So, there was an extra layer of difficulty for the Cal band and I thought the Cal band still did great!
In my 2009 post, I provided a spectrum with military style bands on one end and the Stanford band in all of its inane scrambling glory at the other end. I would place the Cal band in the middle on the spectrum, with solid fundamentals, but also a focus on energy and entertainment. I would place the OSU band very close to the military band. Watching this video (which I posted in the 2009 post) gives you an idea of how the OSU band works:
There is a stiffness coupled with an internal timidity to their energy. It may be hard to see that when you are experiencing 50 trumpets playing at fortissimo, but dynamics do not an amazing show make. It all seems very safe.
This was especially true in the halftime show. The OSU band did a cartoon show of some sort. The were again technically perfect, but lacked energy. It was not artistically arresting. Here is a video from valued reader CalBear81
The Cal band did a French dance music show, which I thought was done extremely well. Yes, there were some technical problems. I remember a particular person pivoting like 3 breaths after everybody else. But it was a very exciting show with great music selection.
You can watch it yourself (you can literally see people dancing along in the crowd):
Ground eye's view:
The only other criticism I have would be that there was no dance block. For a show with the name "dance" in the title, I'm surprised that there was no dance block. Perhaps they felt that the show in and of itself was enough and that's fair.
Either way, in the pre-game show, which is more of a buttoned up affair, I thought the two bands were closer (although I still think the Cal band did better). In the halftime show, it wasn't even close. I really enjoyed how the Cal band was doing some newer music that most, if not all, other marching bands probably haven't touched yet. Yes, Get Lucky is the song of the moment, but the other pieces were not quite as overdone.
You might argue that it was just one show and OSU band has done many other great shows. That may be the case, I'm not knowledgeable about their entire body of work. However, this was the big opportunity for them on the road. They needed to bring their A game and I'd be truly surprised if that was their A game.
Another thing that seemed surprising to me was how limited their packet seemed to be. I think they played the Hey Song! I'm not sure I've heard a marching band play that since I was in the pep band back in my high school days. Here is the first clip that comes up when I search "Hey Song Marching Band" on YouTube. As soon as the horns kick in, you'll immediately recognize the song.
They also played Carmina Burana. Twice. If you want to do Carmina Burana, you really need a full choir. Here is a video of O Fortuna from Carmina Burana, which you will also recognize pretty quickly:
Outside of the that context, it's just extremely cliche, in my view. It's like playing the Darth Vader theme aka Imperial March. Or the Jaws theme(which the OSU band might have played, I cannot quite remember).
This may relate to their limited instrumentation. When you don't have woodwinds, you can't play quite as many songs. When you have amazing brass, cliches like Carmina Burana are going to be enticing, because you think you can bring the gravitas there.
Fans of football got to see an fast-paced, exciting game on Saturday. For us marching band nerds, we got to see two of the best damn bands in the land doing their thing. Even if I think the Cal band got the better of the OSU band, it's somewhat disingenuous to even consider it a competition. Both bands just wanted to do the best job possible and the true winners were us fans. The energy before the game was truly special. The OSU fans cheering on their band. Then, the Cal fans joining in when the OSU band started to play their woodwind-less version of Fight.
Then, switch that when the Cal band came out. The Cal fans cheering on their band were joined by the OSU fans when the Cal band started to play the woodwinded OSU fight song. Then, both bands playing the national anthem together!
Fans of all stripes joining together to celebrate collegiate football in all its glory. If you didn't like the pregame ceremony on Saturday, college sports are not for you! The highlight for me was the California spell out in the Cal pregame. It is about 2:45 in to the pregame YouTube video. With each letter, you can hear the explosive energy of the fans screaming along! C! A! L! I! F! O! R! N! I! A! It is quite clear in the video. You HAVE to listen to it!
Thank you to the OSU band for coming out west to show us how you guys do it in the midwest. Thank you to the OSU band for helping push the Cal band to do their best job possible (their pass throughs on the L in the Script Cal may have been done because of the OSU band's pass throughs on their Script Ohio)! Thank you to both bands for representing their fanbases well and helping bring a great energy to the game on Saturday. GO BEARS!